US President Donald Trump approved military strikes against Iran in retaliation for the downing of an unmanned surveillance drone, but pulled back from launching attacks, US media reports said on Friday.
Citing senior White House officials, The New York Times reported an operation sanctioned by Trump to launch attacks on a “handful of Iranian targets” – including radar and missile batteries – was “in its early stages” on Thursday evening when the US leader changed tack and called it off.
Planes were in the air and ships were in position when the order to stand down came, the Times cited one unidentified administration official as saying.
The Washington Post and the ABC News also reported the developments, citing unnamed White House officials and other sources said to be familiar with the matter.
The White House declined to comment on the reports.
Reuters news agency on Friday quoted Iranian officials as saying that Tehran received a message from Trump through Oman warning an attack on Iran was imminent, and he urgently wanted to discuss the situation.
“In his message, Trump said he was against any war with Iran and wanted to talk to Tehran about various issues… He gave a short period of time to get our response,” one official said on condition of anonymity.
Iran later denied the Reuters story.
Drone shot down
The IRGC said the unit was downed by a surface-to-air missile, marking the first direct Iranian-claimed attack on US assets amid heightened tensions between Washington and Tehran, unleashed by Trump’s decision last year to withdraw from an international accord that curbed Tehran’s nuclear programme.
Since then, the United States has deployed more military assets to the Gulf along with thousands of additional troops.
US officials said the drone was in the international territory at the time it was brought down. Trump separately told reporters “Iran made a big mistake” and his “country will not stand for it”, before later suggesting the move may have been unintentional.
When asked if he would respond militarily, Trump said, “You’ll soon find out.”
The ISR Flight path and grid plots for the RQ-4A shot down by Iran in the Strait of Hormuz. “This was an unprovoked attack on a U.S. surveillance asset that had not violated Iranian airspace at any time …” – Lt Gen Joseph Guastella, @USAFCENT pic.twitter.com/uczI5HF68b
— U.S. Central Command (@CENTCOM) June 20, 2019
On Friday, Iran’s Foreign Ministry said Tehran had “indisputable” evidence that the aircraft violated its airspace.
Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi told Swiss Ambassador Markus Leitner, whose country represents US interests in Iran, of the evidence on Thursday night, the ministry said in a statement.
“Even some parts of the drone’s wreckage has been retrieved from Iran’s territorial waters,” Araghchi told Leitner.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif gave the exact coordinates where he said the drone was shot down, adding Iran has retrieved sections of the unmanned aerial vehicle from its territorial waters.
At 00:14 US drone took off from UAE in stealth mode & violated Iranian airspace. It was targeted at 04:05 at the coordinates (25°59'43"N 57°02'25"E) near Kouh-e Mobarak.
We've retrieved sections of the US military drone in OUR territorial waters where it was shot down. pic.twitter.com/pJ34Tysmsg
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) June 20, 2019
Majid Takht Ravanchi, Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, sent a letter to Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Thursday denouncing the incident as a “blatant violation of international law”.
“While the Islamic Republic of Iran does not seek war, it reserves its inherent right … to take all appropriate necessary measures against any hostile act violating its territory, and is determined to vigorously defend its land, sea and air,” Ravanchi said.
The US is trying to create “Iran phobia”, Iran’s Defence Minister Amir Hatami said on Friday.
“Very complicated and suspicious conditions exist in the region,” Hatami was quoted as saying by the Iranian Labour News Agency. “It seems that all of this is in line with an overall policy for creating Iran phobia and creating a consensus against the Islamic Republic.”
FAA bars Gulf flights
The downing of the $130m drone was also the latest in an escalating series of incidents in the Gulf since mid-May, including unexplained explosions on six tankers that the US blamed on Iran.
Tehran vehemently denied involvement and suggested the US may be responsible as a casus belli to launch a war on the Islamic Republic.
The escalation of words and actions has raised fears that a miscalculation or a further rise in friction could push the US and Iran into open conflict.
The US Federal Aviation Administration issued an emergency notice barring US airlines from flying in airspace over parts of the Gulf because of the “heightened military activities and increased political tensions”.
Several airlines said they would fly alternative routes to skirt the Gulf region.
Analysts, meanwhile, warned the downing of the drone and its subsequent fallout could result in a major conflict erupting in the region.
“This is a 1914 moment in the region – a single incident can result into a catastrophic clash in the region,” Ali Vaez, Iran project director for the Belgium-based International Crisis Group, told Al Jazeera.
“That would not just involve the Iranians and the Americans, but the entire region would be put on fire,” Vaez added.
Amid the rising friction, an official from Saudi Arabia said on Friday that Riyadh supported the US’s “maximum pressure campaign on Iran”.
Prince Khalid bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s deputy defence minister, said in a tweet that he had discussed the latest “Iranian attacks” with US envoy for Iran Brian Hook during a meeting between the pair.
“We affirmed the kingdom’s support … which came as a result of continuing Iranian hostility and terrorism,” he said. The pair had explored “the latest efforts to counter hostile Iranian acts and continuous escalation that threaten the region’s security and stability”, he added.
US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, meanwhile, told reporters she didn’t think Trump would engage the US in war, saying there was “no appetite” for it among Americans.
“It’s a dangerous situation. The high-tension wires are up in the region. We have to be strong and strategic about how we protect our interests. We also cannot be reckless in what we do,” Pelosi said.